An interview with Mary Evelyn Tucker
Echoes of a long-ago geometry class may waft through the minds of viewers who catch Journey of the Universe, the science-themed film airing on PBS stations starting December 3 [see my review here]. The film was shot on the island of Samos, birthplace of the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who famously came up with the theorem, pertaining to right-angled triangles. Samos boasts a lot more than its Pythagorean legacy: In Journey, the island’s bucolic scenery sometimes steals the show. In an interview, I asked Journey co-writer and executive producer Mary Evelyn Tucker about the selection of Samos and other matters related to the film. Tucker is a senior lecturer and research scholar at Yale, where she has been appointed to the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, the Department of Religious Studies, and the Center for Bioethics. She directs the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim, and teaches in the joint MA program in religion and ecology.
Celia Wren: Your academic specialty is Asian religions. How did your interest in religion and ecology come about?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: The origin of my interest in religion and ecology, one could say, was in going to Asia over the past forty years and traveling extensively through East Asia and South Asia—and especially through India and China, and realizing that these two great civilizations, each over a billion people, are going to change the face of the planet as they modernize.
We need to pay attention to this dialectic of environment and development, especially as it’s emerging on the Asian continent. I’ve been concerned about what kind of environmental ethics would be culturally based and sensitive to the religious dynamics of these ancient civilizations. It is certainly the case that, in principal, the traditions of Confucianism and Taoism and Buddhism and Hinduism have a very robust sensibility of human/earth relations, of living within a sense of the sacred community of life. Bringing those traditions forward was of great concern to me and many other scholars, whom we convened at Harvard for the three-year series on world religions and ecology. [Tucker and Grim organized the Conferences on World Religions and Ecology at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard. These ran from 1995 to 1998, with a culminating conference at the United Nations in 1998.]
Wren: When did it become clear that the island of Samos was the right place to shoot Journey?
Tucker: We did give a great deal of thought to where to film. The decision came pretty early on in our writing process. We wanted to situate the film within a crossroads of civilization. Samos was a great center of the ancient world. The temple to Hera on the island was one of the largest temples in the ancient world, according to Herodotus. And of course the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras lived there: His work joining together the humanities and sciences was a great inspiration. And it’s a beautiful island.
Wren: All the images in the film are quite gorgeous.
Tucker: It was a huge, huge effort to find the visuals—the right ones. And, of course, pay for them. And get the music!
Wren: Is our society making any progress in moving past the perception that science and religion are inherently at loggerheads?
Tucker: I think the conversation in the United States between religion and science has become very polarized, especially through the media, which doesn’t allow for nuances and more of a dialogue—it becomes almost a shouting match between extremes. But in many parts of the rest of the world—across Asia for example, where almost two thirds of the people live—this kind of tension is not so prominent and exacerbated. This is a U.S. phenomenon.
I think we need—and hopefully a film like this may illustrate this—for this tension to be overcome in a way that’s going to be productive for the future of the planet. Science has given us an enormous amount of knowledge and information on our environmental crises, ranging from climate change to pollution, to loss of ecosystems, to diminishment of water resources, and so on. At the same time, the world’s religions are beginning to come on board for a more robust and diversified environmental ethics based on the principals of each of the world’s religions; these ethics are going to look different from a Hindu perspective or a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or Islamic perspective. I think we need to come to common ground: A flourishing future depends on a shared future, and that means we’ve got to overcome the differences between science and religion, and even the differences among the religions themselves. Our greatest efforts need to go for the continuity of life and the planet.